Transitioning Your Esports Team from Club to Varsity StatusJan 18, 2023
By Alex Wurden, Oakmont High School
Page designer: Vanessa Ayoub
Photo Credit and Information: Amber Shenk, Angel Camacho, and Mario Interrante
A few years ago, the California Interscholastic Federation began an esports pilot and officially sponsored competitive tournament play for a California state title in League of Legends and Rocket League. This year, CIF has collaborated with NASEF to run a spring season that also includes Super Smash Brothers Ultimate. This is a big deal for esports, as students appreciate the validation of their hobby, their commitment to deliberate practice and improvement, and their skill as actual Varsity athletes in a way that is comparable to our conventional athletes. Many coaches who have been operating as volunteers for years are also eager for funding, support, and maybe even for a coaching stipend for the many hours they’ve committed to their programs. The question many coaches are having right now is what does it take to make the transition from a club to a varsity team?
Our transition process at Oakmont High School in Roseville, CA, began five years ago through outreach and a variety of ways to boost our visibility and legitimacy on campus. We did this by hosting a Staff Day once a semester where we invited all teachers, administrators, counselors, and district staff to join our team for a half-hour presentation on esports starting from a basic description of esports is all the way up through the job prospects, college scholarships, and research-proven academic and social-emotional benefits. We then invited staff to try one of our games with a student helping to coach them through the process. I also maintain a website, repost our twitch.tv streams to YouTube so that they can be accessed through our school filters, and promote the sport by sending out weekly email updates on our team’s progress, special events, player highlights, and more. Working closely with our yearbook team, parent-teacher association, media production classes, and student newspaper has also made us more visible on campus. We’ve also sold custom jerseys at a markup, and used those plus other funds to complete a full set of loanable generic jerseys.
Once the awareness and support is there, the next step is to talk with your site athletic director, district activities director, and board of directors. (I’m assuming you’ve already been working with your IT support on all the firewall issues that seem to plague smooth operation everywhere.) Your district may have specific policies in place for when and how a sport can be approved. For example, my district includes multiple high schools, and we had to meet the requirement that at least 50% of campuses either had or were planning on having a team. The Board of Directors may need to create official job openings for coaching positions, allocate some basic funds, and sign off.
Once you’re officially a sport, it’ll be up to your board, district, and athletic director what will need to happen next. CIF guidance is that each site determines their own policies regarding requirements. Our district decided that if esports is going to be considered a Varsity sport, then we need to meet all the same requirements as other Varsity sports. Expect to complete a formal application if your position will be have a stipend and to jump through some major hoops including hours of online coach training, renewing your CPR/AED/First-Aid certification, and completing things that don’t seem nearly as relevant to esports such as concussion and heat stroke prevention training. Athletes will need to complete a medical physical exam, concussion baseline testing, and of course meet all academic eligibility requirements. You’ll need to attend athletic nights, form a booster club to help with fundraising, and attend coaches meetings.
My experience so far indicates esports athletes tend to have less consistent attendance and commitment than many of our conventional athletes, which makes sense when you realize many of them just don’t do extracurricular activities otherwise. This means that the additional paperwork, concussion baseline testing, medical physical, expectation to participate in fundraisers, and expectation to attend in-person practices consistently are real barriers to entry. My peak participation as a club team included about 35 students competing and an additional 15-25 casuals. Operating as an athletics team with a somewhat successful effort to herd cats and get all the paperwork cleared has dropped me down to 15 Varsity (LoL, SSBU, RL), 10 Club (OW2), and 10 more casual players in total.
To sum it up, build your program’s legitimacy and visibility first. Then get in touch with your administration, district staff, and board of directors. Then expect that the added support and validation of being a ‘real’ athletic team is also going to come at the cost of some major additional organizational burdens, but will still be a net positive transition.
Beyond these basics, here are some additional thoughts:
- As the registration burden on you and players increases, bundle together all forms needed into one big, organized packet (example linked later on).
- While SSBU, RL, and OW2 are CIF-sponsored, games like OW2 aren’t. Those teams can continue operating as a club sport in parallel with your varsity teams, compete through separate leagues like UFEA, HSEL, or PlayVS, but won’t be recognized with a Varsity letter.
- If you’re straddling both club and athletics, consider which options for fundraising and accounting are easier for you to manage, and what restrictions there are for how it can be spent.
- In conventional sports, it would be crazy for the same person to be expected to competently coach golf, basketball, pole-vault, and water-polo, but in esports most high schools don’t have more than 1-2 volunteer coaches for their entire program. Train and delegate to student leadership to fill the gaps and keep yourself sane. Also schedule a mix of on-campus supervised on off-campus unsupervised practice run by your team captains using Discord.
- At the start of each school-year, clear all alumni and any adults who haven’t completed your district’s volunteer clearance process off your server, for liability and safety reasons. Having students include their first name, gamer tag, graduation year, and primary game in their /nickname helps with this process. Limit what information you share with outside organizations, and make sure you and students can retain control of that information to ensure legal compliance with FERPA and SOPIPA.
And here are some helpful links:
- CIF Esports Initiative Homepage
- Oakmont Esports’ paperwork bundle for ’22-23
- Oakmont Esports Homepage and Twitch.tv channel
- Oakmont Esports’ parent night and board presentation powerpoint
- Esports Training for New Coaches (free, though a little outdated at this point)
Alex Wurden currently teaches at Oakmont High School in Roseville, CA, where he has coached the school's esports teams over the past six years. He authored the website "Esports Training for New Coaches", is a NASEF Scholastic Fellow, and had the pleasure of participating in Season 3 of Coach Rivals. Over his 15-year teaching career -which has included nearly every STEM subject at both the high school and middle school levels- he's also had the pleasure of coaching track and field, cross country, VEX robotics, coding club, and other extracurriculars. When not teaching or supporting after-school programs, Alex enjoys time with his wife and kids, gaming, reading, working out, travelling, and building and overclocking custom PC's. He grew up in Los Alamos, New Mexico, participated in a variety of science internships and jobs, went to undergrad as a National Merit Scholar at UC-San Diego where he studied music, psychology, and physics, and later completed a Masters in Education Technology at Arizona State University.